When we talk about music, we often talk in labels. We give types of music labels in order connect on shared category preferences, split hairs over purist expertise, seek out tunes in our wheelhouse, create a narrative in music history, and allow the music industry to create a product for market demand.
When we talk about people, we also often talk in labels. And we give people labels for similar reasons.
Against Me! is a self-professed working class band out of Gainesville, FL. The band’s most recent release and its seventh studio album, Shape Shift with Me, has been met with critical acclaim, citing a sort of self-actualized maturity of songwriting that is at once organic, smart and expansive. The record is the culmination of four years of existence for Laura Jane Grace, founding member, guitarist, lead vocalist, songwriter, and the band’s beating rebel heart center.
With James Bowman (lead guitar, vocals), Inge Johansson (bass guitar, vocals) and Atom Willard (drums), Against Me!, born an anarchist solo act, grew up to create a catalog of clever, infectious, anthemic music that takes its place among the so-called classic acts while being entirely revelatory. Shape Shift with Me both defies and defines genre with tracks like “333,” “Crash” (our generation’s “Blitzkrieg Bop”), and “Boyfriend” (co-written by The Blood Brothers’ Cody Votolato, along with “Norse Truth”), the whole of it executed for a piece of work that’s at once defiantly punk rock, liberatingly vulnerable and universally significant.
Music and people are a couple of the most difficult things to describe. Shorthand for meaning, abbreviation for knowledge, language and labels are what help us understand each other, though they are so often used to define that which we do not understand. Laura Jane Grace’s decision to transition may have surprised some, and the subject matter and sounds of the latest albums from Against Me! may cause purists to label the acts a “sellout”…but what’s more punk rock than being yourself and fucking the rest?
I talked to Against Me!’s drummer Atom Willard (formerly of The Offspring, Angels & Airwaves, Social Distortion) about Shape Shift with Me, the upcoming tour with Green Day, and the making of the music.
Where have I reached you? Where does everyone call home?
I live in Los Angeles. Everybody’s spread out. And it’s really tough to say where Laura is at any given time. I’m pretty sure she gets mail in Chicago but it really depends on what she’s doing. She’s kind of all over. Then James, our guitar player, he just lives back in Gainesville. And then Inge, our bass player, he lives…You know, I think he lives in Sweden still. He might live in Norway, I’m not totally sure. I think he spends a little bit of time in Los Angeles. He’s really the hardest one to hold down. (Laughs)
Bouncing around a bit, I guess.
Yeah, we don’t rehearse when we’re off, and we’re not usually off for very long. We’ll get together before a tour and have a couple days together in the studio or something and then head out, and that’s usually all we need.
Against Me! wrapped up a tour of North America appearances with Bad Religion and Dave Hause, dubbed the The Vox Populi Tour (“voice of the people” in Latin), at the end of 2016. What went into setting that up?
That was our last U.S. run. We actually just got back from Europe. We were out there for all of December, pretty much. We just got home a couple days before Christmas.
Short holiday, then!
(Laughs) Yeah, I mean. A lot of the European cities decorate pretty well, so it was good to enjoy their version of Christmas and that kind of stuff. But it definitely shortens your feeling of a Christmas holiday. Our last show there was in Berlin on the 22nd, so I think I got home the 23rd.
Well, I hope you had a nice holiday. Care to offer any thoughts on tomorrow?
Tomorrow’s the inauguration.
Oh, yeah. I’m not acknowledging that…That’s actually not happening. I mean, I’m just pretending that’s actually not a real thing. And I feel like if I could just ostrich this whole thing, like just put my head in the sand and bury it deep, deep down, then I’ll never really experience how bad it’s actually going to be…(Laughs) Everybody’s got a different approach.
The Vox Populi Tour kicked off at the end of September, shortly after the release Shape Shift with Me, at Starland Ballroom in Sayreville, NJ. That place is a bit like musical home base for the state. How did you like playing there? Anything you noticed or remember from that particular night?
I mean, I love the Starland Ballroom. I’ve played there so many times with so many different bands and I’ve always had a great show there. But the most interesting thing about that show was that about 90 minutes before we were going to go on, Laura completely threw her back out. Like, was laid out on the ground, couldn’t move. Tons and tons and tons of pain. Ha, so that was kind of shitty. She was really in a lot of pain and discomfort, and it was actually…we almost didn’t play the show. Like we were really, really close to having to pull out because she couldn’t move, she’s couldn’t stand or walk or anything.
But there happened to be a massage therapist that we know actually from another part of Jersey and she was there and was able to really pull some quick shit together. I don’t even know what voodoo happened, but (laughs) we got Laura out on stage. She got through the set. That was it. The next few days were rough!
That’s pretty cool! I bet no one would have known.
I mean, that was her biggest fear. She doesn’t want to give a half-ass performance and not be able to fully perform. That would have been the real reason to pull out. For a while, we just didn’t say anything. But then it got closer and closer and closer, it was like, “Fuck it, let’s do this.”
What have your experiences been like playing New Jersey shows, with Against Me! or any of the other bands you’ve played with, at other Jersey venues?
I mean, going way, way back, I played a lot of times at Maxwell’s in Hoboken, and I really liked that little spot, one of the earliest places I’ve played on the East Coast, that I remember. So many really great shows there, a lot of fun. I kind of miss that that’s not there anymore…I mean, I really wouldn’t want to play there, because it was tiny, but (laughs) there was a lot of fun. A lot of good stuff was happening there
Two parter: How did your tour with Green Day kicking off in March come together? And speaking of, Green Day is a smaller outfit, as is Against Me! How does the energy differ touring with and being with a band with fewer vs. a larger number of people?
You know, a band that I was in had six people up on stage and, you know, whoever else along with us, so that was a pretty large touring party. And then with Against Me!, with just four people on stage, it’s a focused thing. Everybody’s pretty in tune with each other and really…It feels comfortable, it feels right. I feel like we are able to replicate what’s on the records, you know, pretty accurately. And there’s not a lot of extra stuff needed.
So the way the tour came together, they basically asked us if we could do it. And we said, “Yeah, we can do it.” (Laughs) We’re like, “Cool! Awesome.” Done.
Shape Shift with Me is Against Me!’s seventh full-length studio album, and your second with the band. How does writing records with this band differ from writing music with others?
I mean, working with every songwriter or band or situation is going to be slightly different, although there are a lot of things that are similar. You know, it’s in the same realm. It’s all pretty relatable to each other. You know, Laura and I work really well together in terms of working on song ideas and getting stuff together. It’s a pretty comfortable medium and there’s not a lot of ego involved.
It turns out that it’s fun to put the songs together and, I mean, it’s great. It’s a very enjoyable process, if you can say that about seeing stuff come together that is oftentimes heart-wrenching. A lot of her subject matter is pretty intense and heavy, but still. We really enjoy getting the best out of her and giving it the best package that we can. Just surrounding her lyrics with most appropriate…the best music that we can.
I’d love to know more about the sequence of [your songwriting process] and how things come together. Does Laura write first and then the layers come on top of that? I know every band has a different way of doing it.
Yeah, I mean, there’s no set way for us either. Sometimes she’ll just have a riff or something and we’ll just be sort of goofing around musically and something will happen in that way, and then she’ll say, “Okay, put that down.” And then she’ll come back in a couple days and be like, “I have these words kind of loosely bounding around and this really fits with this,” and then other times she’ll come with a fully formulated idea like, “Okay, this is what I’m feeling. This is the verse, this is the chorus.” And even if we haven’t established an actual feel to the song, she’s got chord changes, progressions and that stuff all done. So there’s no strict formula to follow, it really just goes from song to song.
How much of Shape Shift with Me’s reception do you think is influenced by direct reference to previously recorded material, especially for a band with such a devoted following, a great part of which has an even greater devotion to the “punk rock” sound (this is mostly coming from purists)?
Oh god, I have no idea how people think about music. You know what I mean? It’s such a subjective thing. There’s no right way or wrong way to view…anything. In my band, their band. Songs or in general. If something speaks to you and agrees with you, you like it, you want to listen to it. Whether or not you think it’s what a band should be doing, it’s like, everything is going to change, everything is going to evolve and everything is going to continue to move in a different direction. Whether you like that direction of a certain band, that’s hard to say.
In 2013, you came in to fill a vacancy on drums on a temp to perm arrangement, and then Inge Johansson came in on bass that same year. How did you two come to fill those slots?
Well, at the end of 2012, there was a drummer emergency where they had a trip to Australia booked and the drummer quit, like, two weeks beforehand. So they called, and I was like, “Yes, absolutely. I definitely want to do this.” I’m a fan of the band, and it was easy for me to commit to it. So I went to Australia with them and it was like a two-week tour, and it was a lot of fun. We had a really good time. And during that trip we talked about it and Laura asked if I would play drums on Gender Dysphoria Blues, and I said, “Absolutely.” We came back to the States, had a week off or something and went directly into the studio and recorded the drums for that record.
And then a lot of time passed. James and Laura finished the record and during that time Andrew [Seward, former bass player] ended up leaving the band, and there was just many months…And I was booked with other stuff, but towards the end of 2013 is when we were like, “Okay, we’re going to play shows. We’re going to start to do stuff…we need a bass player.”
And Laura had met Inge…I don’t remember what the deal was, I think they had played a festival or something in Europe and he had reached out to her or something, like, “If you ever need a bass player, I would love to be the person!” And she was like, “Yeah, let’s just get Inge!” You know, everybody had met him. I toured with his other band, the International Noise Conspiracy, so I had known and met him a little bit from before. We didn’t do any audition or anything like that, we’re just like, “He’s the guy,” and flew him out! (Laughs)
OK so I’m gullible as hell and when I read your quote in the one-sheet on “Crash” music video, “This was one of the most difficult videos we’ve ever made because it was filmed in outer space,” I thought for a second you guys were in a moon-room or something. Why no makeup for you?
I feel like my skin doesn’t react well with makeup…I don’t often wear makeup…I’m not too good at applying makeup. I dunno, it wasn’t in the cards for me and, honestly, all their makeup was so good that I didn’t even need any. You know what I mean? They were really able to carry the torch on that one and accomplish the goal.
Anything to add?
I hope that anyone and everyone that wants to see Against Me! gets to. Come out and have a good time at the show. We do kind of pride ourselves on putting on a high-energy show that is a lot of fun and is fun for everybody. It’s a place where anybody and everybody can feel safe and just have a really good time.
Against Me! performs March 15 at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, NY and March 16 at The Paramount in Huntington, NY. For more information, visit againstme.net.